“The mind’ll quit a lot sooner than the body will.” I had a coach a few years ago that would tell us this as we struggled to finish our workouts. It was something that was meant to inspire, but that we grew to hate. It was something that made us realize that there was no way we were going to get out of our workout. But it made us realize that we are capable of more than we think, making us better athletes in the end.
It’s been about three years since I’ve seen my dear coach, but his message stuck with me. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve repeated his saying in my head as I struggled with workouts, research, getting up in the morning, and sometimes finishing my meals (poor students have to take full advantage). At any rate, I’ve thought a lot about what the psychology behind this saying could mean for athletics.
In order to do this, though, we have to look at the physiology behind it. The saying implies that the limit of what the body can do is more than what the mind believes it is capable of. In physical terms, muscles work by providing energy to the different structures. Combine this energy with electrical stimulation and the muscle will contract, causing movement. This means that we need a certain amount of energy to get the muscle moving. Next, we look at what happens when we build muscle. Essentially, the muscle gets slightly over-worked, gently damaging the muscle . The natural response of the body is to overcompensate by filling the gaps with more muscle. This means that, in order to build muscle and become a better athlete, pushing your body to a slight overload is essential. In this, my coach was right. We have to push ourselves to something that will make us tired and achy, but it will make us better in the long term.
On the mental side of this, we have to look at what motivates us to work out. For many competitive athletes, the motivation is to get better and be better than the competition. There can also be factors like the motivational climate built by coaches and teammates . A bit of competition and other people depending on you will likely make you work harder to become better. On top of all this, but still in the same vein of wanting to get better, we have to consider that the person working out wants to be as good as possible – that means a high level of fitness, optimal technique, and finding a degree of sport-specific functional equivalence, all of which can also be related to the athletes belief in his or her ability to do these things [5-7,11,13]. We also have to understand that it can be a huge motivation to look and feel good, and most people understand that hard work can get us there. This may fall along the cost-benefit analysis spectrum  and definitely has to do with self-regulation [4,9].
These are how things work in a normal workout, but what about pushing yourself to the limit, as it were? My coach would have us believe that the number of reps you can do is much higher than you actually think, physiologically. But what does this limit mean? Is physical exhaustion a physical incapability to complete the assigned task? That is, either the muscle does not have enough energy to move, or the muscle has been damaged too much to be able to complete the movement. The “Central Fatigue Hypothesis” contradicts common sense [4,12], claiming that muscular exhaustion is a result of the central nervous system, and that muscles are able to work long after the brain thinks it has reached exhaustion. This may still be due to a lack of glucose, bringing us back to the amount of fuel in the body . Physically, though, the body should be able to do what we ask of it, provided it has glucose. So what is keeping our bodies from the doing what we tell it to do?
That’s where self-regulation comes in. According to the limited strength model of self-regulation, humans are able to control their inner thoughts, emotions, feelings, and the physical responses that follow . Two things that seem to have an effect are optimism and planning behaviors [3,8]. Being positive about and understanding the workout are extremely important in making sure the physical and cognitive responses work to your advantage. If you think it will be hard, you’ll expect pain, and you won’t work as hard. If you believe that you can finish the workout and fully commit to getting better, you will complete the workout and ultimately be a better athlete, as well as have optimum brain function on your side.
Obviously, there are downsides. In this author’s not so humble opinion, certain cult-like followings that use these social support and motivational climate techniques to the extreme (crossing fitness with religion, as it were) are detrimental. These followings have a high risk of developing, among other things, rhabdomyolysis, a condition resulting from over-exertion – beyond muscle-building discomfort – that can lead to drastic and severe consequences . This points to the importance of a coach and athletes that understand what the workout actually consists of and how to intelligently handle the resulting workload.
So, was my coach right? I think so. The mind will certainly quit sooner than the body if you don’t think in the right way. I once dreaded hearing it, but now love the saying. With a positive attitude, intelligent workouts, and a good system of motivation and social support, the body can achieve things that the mind would never consider possible. This is how elite athletes are made and how improvements can be made in strength and endurance cleanly, ethically, and effectively. Keep up the good work, coach.